According to recent news reports (chron.com and reviewjournal.com), the Westin Casuarina Las Vegas Hotel, Casino & Spa is holding attendees responsible for paying the bills still owed by the organizers of a meeting they attended in October last year.

As conference speaker and coauthor of Chicken Soup for the Dental Soul, Don Dible told the Associated Press, "Hey, I just showed up and handed the registration clerk my credit card. I paid for my room and expenses. I thought that was the end of it. Five months later, I'm charged $665? I'm not a happy camper."

At issue is almost $57,000 that The Coaching Center of Austin, Texas, owes the hotel for food and beverage and other services related to a dental conference it held in the fall. Dible told the AP reporter that speakers and attendees started seeing charges for these meeting costs on their credit cards as a “pro-rated amount per attendee.” The news reports quote the hotel owner as saying that the meeting organizers were warned this would happen if they didn’t pay up, while the meeting organizer says they were trying to set up a plan to do just that before attendees started seeing charges on their statements.

“This takes the problem of unexpected fees and surcharges to a whole new height,” says Tyra Hilliard, Esq., CMP, an Arlington, Va.–based consultant and educator on legal and risk-management issues for the meetings industry.

Meetings industry lawyer James Goldberg of Goldberg & Associates PLLC, Washington, D.C., agrees, saying, “This is a very unusual situation, one that I have never run across before.” He adds that he isn’t sure if the hotel can make these pro-rated charges stick, “but that’s probably the subject of future litigation.”

Hilliard says that, based on the publicly available facts, the hotel appears to have made a poor management decision--both ethically and legally. “Assuming the contract for the event is between The Coaching Center and the Westin Casuarina, there should not be any obligation on the part of the attendees to pay the fees that The Coaching Center did not pay,” she says. “The hotel is assuming that the attendees and The Coaching Center have joint and several liability for the unpaid contract debt, but barring some bizarre contract provision of which I am not aware, that goes against legal norms for this type of contract.”

Joan Eisenstodt of meeting consultancy firm Eisenstodt Associates, Washington, D.C., says this is one more instance where buyers should beware. “Years ago, I learned to read the folio information when I checked into hotels. It is a contract, and it is remarkable what can be charged back to an individual,” she points out.

While she considers this a giant public relations error for the hotel, Eisenstodt adds that there may be a positive side of the situation. “It is causing much discussion. If it gets planners or execs to read their hotel contracts and individuals to read their reservation and check-in forms, hooray; and, second, if it causes people to realize what hotels sometimes go through to get a bill paid, then it may be worth it.”

As for what planners should do in light of this situation, Goldberg says, “Don’t do anything. If a planner inserts a contract provision saying that the hotel cannot bill individual attendees in the event the master account isn't paid, that might get hotels to thinking that they are able to do this, and counter with a clause of their own.”